By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes
In 17 years on the Salem-Keizer School District crisis team, Pat Curran, a counselor at Whiteaker Middle School, said he typically responds to one or two student or teacher deaths in the district per school year.
This isn’t a normal year.
In Keizer alone, three students have died since McNary freshman Isaac Garcia was hit by a train on Dec. 30.
“There’s been a lot of tragedy,” said Curran, who along with responding to two incidents at schools in South Salem was one of four members of the crisis team at McNary on Jan. 3, four days after Garcia’s death. “This has been a tough year compared to past.”
Coordinated by Darcie Jones, program associate for counseling for the school district, the crisis team is made up of 30 individuals, mostly school counselors.
WAYS PARENTS CAN HELP GRIEVING CHILDREN
1. Recognize your own feelings and loss issues.
2. Give accurate information about the death, if you have it. Knowing the facts can dispel worry.
It’s OK to say “I don’t know” if that’s the case.
3. Be aware of your child’s personal issues. (i.e., recent losses, worry about a vulnerable family member, being friends or disliking the person that died). They may be impacted even if they did not know the person.
4. Support your child’s stages of grieving. They may express sadness, disbelief, anger, silliness, fear, defiance, “crankiness”, excessive noise or activity, or suffer from nightmares or insomnia. These are all normal responses to loss and need to be validated.
5. Encourage them to talk about their feelings. Then listen!
6. Share your own feelings. It’s okay to share tears and hugs.
7. Emphasize that they could not have prevented what happened.
8. REGARDING SUICIDE: Emphasize that suicide is a mistake — a permanent solution to temporary problems, and that other people would have helped ________________ if he/she had been able to ask for help.
Jones said their job is to “stabilize” and “triage” the building by providing support to staff and students.
The bulk of what the crisis team does happens before school starts when a group of counselors, usually 3-5, depending on the anticipated impact of the tragedy meet with administration to discuss how to present the tragedy to the teachers and student body. So everyone is on the same page, an email is then sent with a script to tell teachers exactly what to say to students.
Often a member of the crisis team will go into the deceased student’s classroom, read the script if the teacher is unable to and then answer questions.
“We do a good and deliberate job of just giving the facts because it’s not uncommon for kids to say, ‘I heard’ or ‘I saw’,” said Gail Winden, a transition counselor with the school district. “Everything is scripted. We work real hard to meet them (students) where they’re at and allow them to begin to process.”
The crisis team will also follow the student’s schedule.
“We’ll have a physical presence in the classroom of the student because those tend to be the toughest classrooms to get back on track because there’s an empty desk there,” Jones said.
THINGS A GRIEVING CHILD NEEDS
a. Someone to listen to them
c. To know they are safe
d. Have their questions answered over and over again
e. To know it’s not their fault
f. Permission to feel
g. Opportunity to express their feelings in several ways
h. Have feelings validated
i. Structure and routine
j. Permission to be quiet
k. Permission to be a child
While the school day proceeds as usual, students are also encouraged to go to a safe place somewhere in the building, like the McNary library, where they can talk with a counselor one-on-one.
“It’s allowing the school to go along with their routine because routine is really important,” Curran said. “It’s keeping the school functioning at a normal level for those students are aren’t as impacted and the students that are impacted have a safe place to go.”
In the safe place, kids are encouraged to do something to help the grieving family, like make a card. Those students are documented so the full-time counselors in the building can follow through.
The crisis team hears a lot of the same questions from students and staff: “Why?” or after a suicide, “I should have known.”
“Every person who knew a person says, ‘Man, what did I miss?’ Every teacher who had a kid, ‘What’d I miss?’ That part is universal,” Jones said. “Lowering that level of responsibility is a lot of the work.”
But the crisis team is mainly at the school to listen. They are not grief counselors.
“Any loss involves a fairly lengthy process to heal from,” Jones said. “We can’t fast forward that process for any building for any reason. Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding that we’re supposed to fix it, which is human nature and I get why, but really our job is to come in a stabilize. Every building that we’ve gone to any response to this year is still healing from that but that’s not our role. Our role is to go in so that they can even just have a normal school day and do school again. Those counselors in the building are still going to be seeing kids who are continuing to be impacted. We’re kind of like the EMTs. We’re not the doctors.”
Social media has had a huge impact on the crisis team. While the counselors no longer break the news of a tragedy to students, they also have to quash rumors.
Jones said the best thing parents can do during a tragedy is be available and be a good listener.
“People in general are very uncomfortable talking about death and especially talking about that with their kids,” she said. “If there’s one message I could say to parents, there’s no magic to it.”
While Jones likes to alternate members of the crisis team and not call the same people every time, being a counselor takes its toll on those who respond.
Curran makes a point to give his wife and kids a hug when he gets home.
“One of the things that every counseling program is going to talk about is self care,” Curran said. “The difference between day in and day out and going to a response is you’re definitely with a magnitude of grief and loss like it’s on steroids. You’re like an vacuum sucking up everyone’s emotions and at the end of the day you just need to let it out. It’s just human nature. You’re trying to take care of other people but it’s important to take care of yourself. That’s why we have each other and we debrief.”
Jones enjoys a good cry. Earlier this school year, she was on her way to a movie theater when she got a call from law enforcement about a tragedy.
“I walked in and the lights went down and I just started crying,” she said. “I just indulged myself. I was sitting in a dark theater and I thought ‘I’m just going for it right now.’ No one knew but it was one way I could take care of myself.”
But Jones has also seen the good that can come out of tragedies.
“For every big black cloud that happens, there are always incredible silver linings,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a heightened awareness around the needs of our community, an increase in empathy, an encouragement to everyone around that people matter. And I guess that’s one of the biggest surprises to me in every one of the responses that we ever go on. I always come out of them on the other end with a renewed sense of the goodness of people, kids, staff, parents, community. There’s always a silver lining.”